There are far easier ways to screw up your political career than what Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, is doing right now. Here are some easier ways: you could try to interfere with your country’s justice system to get favors for your financial backers, photos could emerge of the time you painted your face brown for an “Arabian Nights” party, and you could struggle to get vaccines to your citizens during a deadly pandemic even though your arguably less-organized neighbor to the south managed to pull it off. But if none of those work, you could call a new election.
For Americans, the way parliamentary democracies work can be somewhat confusing. For all our unruly politics, American elections are held on a regular schedule (even when the president wants them to be delayed) and American legislatures serve fixed-length terms. The U.S. House of Representatives, seated in January 2021, serves until January 2023, with senators serving overlapping six-year terms. In parliamentary systems, however, especially those modeled on the Westminster system used by the United Kingdom, governments serve as long as they control a majority of votes in the legislature.
In 2019, Canadians returned incumbent prime minister Justin Trudeau to office without a majority. This alone seems weird to Americans, as in the U.S., only one state has a third party large enough to influence state elections. In Canada, though, there are four parties with substantial representation in Parliament: the Liberals, the Conservatives, the Bloc Quebecois, and the New Democrats (the “NDP”). Four parties is enough to block one from winning a majority of seats, which can mean one of three results: (1) a new election to try to win a majority, (2) a coalition government between two or more parties, or (3) a minority government. Minority governments are the favored result in Canada, which values stability, as while a minority government is less stable than a majority one, it generally respects the will of the largest group of voters. The plurality party tends to prefer minority governments, too, because it allows them to build support and then call a new election when the timing is right. Minority governments in Canada almost never serve a full four-year term.
The ability of the prime minister to call a new election whenever he wants – and thus always at a time most favorable to him – has been criticized for giving the PM far too much power. Incumbent Justin Trudeau had a double whammy of power, as much of his current term occurred during a national emergency, giving him wide latitude to reshape Canadian society and then the ability to call an election to see if Canadians like the way he did it.
For the most part, they do. In August 2020, 88% of Canadians polled said the Trudeau government had done a good job handling the pandemic. Just under a year later, that number had fallen to 65%, still nearly 2 in 3. A paltry 37% of Americans said their country’s response was good.
What they don’t like is having this election. In 2020, the province of New Brunswick held an election that was panned because it occurred in the middle of a pandemic. While Canadians are faring better in 2021 than they were in 2020, the idea of having an election right now seems to fly in the face of the stability that is so valued there.
Trudeau likely miscalculated in calling this election. A moderate Conservative leader, a popular NDP leader, and a lot of attention on Canada’s involvement in the War in Afghanistan have all worked against a prime minister who, for steering the country through a pandemic and the economic recovery that is only just now beginning to bear fruit, would likely have coasted to re-election in 2023. A half-dozen polls dropped September 19. In three, the Liberals win. In two, the Conservatives win. In one it’s a tie. That’s almost the same as the polling ahead of the 2019 Canadian federal election.
Canada’s political geography slightly favors the Liberals, and its likely Trudeau’s party retains its plurality status. The Liberals will almost certainly win the most seats. But to win a majority requires not just overcoming the Conservatives but ensuring the NDP and Bloc Quebecois don’t secure too many seats, either.
Trudeau has an iron grip on the party, so its possible he remains leader even if he’s taken the country through an electoral circus only to come up with the same legislative composition as he started with in the summer. It’s also possible, though, that he would step aside for someone like deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland. In fact, its possible that the NDP or another party might make him do that in order to win their support. Minority governments rely on the nominal support of another party to pass legislation, especially budgets and spending bills, and if the NDP or Bloc Quebecois sees Trudeau as a risk they might ask him to step aside in exchange for a minority government deal.
What seems increasingly unlikely above all is that Trudeau is going to get the majority he so desperately wants.